Saturday, January 26, 2008

an exile returns

Today being Burns' Night, I thought it would be a good time to tell this tale.

Recently, I received an invitation at very short notice to attend a friend's birthday party in my home town of Glasgow so, attached as I am to the draughty old fen, I took the train north.

After the party, I stayed with another friend. Fr Jim had enjoyed the do, but had been working all day beforehand in his parish, in an area burdened with multiple deprivations. He'd intended to write a sermon for a Requiem the next morning but was too tired, and after some perfunctory conversation went to bed.

Fr Jim put some notes together upon rising early, and delivered a powerful, heartfelt sermon in celebration of a lady who had died young after a life that some parishioners felt was contrary to Gospel values as they saw them. She was mourned by eight family and friends before the Council took her body on its last journey to the crematorium.

While Jim was away, I talked with some of his parishioners in the presbytery - it was good to be reminded of classic Glaswegian working-class humour, whereby people express their affection by lobbing sometimes volcanic volleys of abuse at each other.

Upon Jim's return, we talked for a long time and one could detect hints of the sadness, loneliness and fatigue that clerics sometimes seem susceptible to, no matter their denomination. It was good to see that some infamous barriers were being broken down: the local Church of Scotland minister includes children from Jim's parish in groups that he takes from Cameroon, and Jim says he admires this man's ability to to risk trusting people to act for the best.

Saying my goodbyes, I took a long walk through the "toon". I ended up in the area where I was born and spent many years in, a place much like Jim's parish. Superficially, it was much changed. I had played a small part in this, having been for some time a member of the management committee of the local Housing Asociation.

As what is now called a "Registered Social Landlord", it was our duty to give priority to people with the highest housing need. But we saw the skewing effect that filling vacant lets with individuals and families who desperately needed housing was having on the area, afflicted as many were with the problems that are often concomitant with having difficulty maintaining tenancies. Our response was to break our own rules by empowering our Director, at her own discretion, to allow more stable families with members in employment to jump the queue so that residents facing seemingly insurmountable challenges could look to role-models within their own community.

We managed to finalise a deal to demolish rundown tenements in an infamous street and put up "aspirational" houses that people would want to stay in when they got jobs instead of leaving the area to be replaced by other tenants with problems they, and the community, would have difficulties in overcoming. In the end, however, the people who had made the area infamous when they were decanted from their tenements made it infamous again when they moved into their nice new homes.

It was, in the end, arrogant of us to presume that we could build up a community with little more than bricks, mortar and double glazing. Troubled societies need to be built up person by person, family by family. Many need help to surmount their challenges by, for example, pressurising corner-shop off-licences to restrict their hours and stocks of superstrength cider and lager; helping stop reluctant collusion with criminals by including Crimestoppers details in newsletters; and making sure that the Police know that hostility is not the only emotion directed towards them when they enter the area. And, although it is necessary to accept a realistic share of responsibility for one's situation, it should be noted that much of the societal problems in areas like mine's and Fr Jim's became entrenched at a time when influential economists seemed to opine that unemployment would be a valid strategic tool to control interest rates; but it should also be noted that these economists never actually said that a certain rate of unemployment was acceptable. Additionally, I do not believe it insignificant that at this time people were dropping out of churches' congregations in order to pursue means of satisfaction that were more immediate and more visible - and more dangerous in every sense.

I popped briefly into my old church, and saw that it had reduced it's size so that the top third could house a hall where functions relevant to the present community's needs could be met. The old shop had been converted to a parent-and-child area, and the noticeboard contained fliers with details of councillors and the local MP and MSP.

After leaving the church. I cought sight of the former getting into his car across the road. A Labour politician whom I have met several times over past decades, I thought of going over "for auld lang syne". Then, I reflected that the reason I'd left the Labour Party after the 2005 general election was that the feelings of abandonment, humiliation and heartbreak had finally grown too unbearable to stay. This MP is, I believe, a good man who cares deeply about his constituents and their joys, sorrows and aspirations. He seems an anachronism in New Labour, which seems more intent on spitting on the land to cool the world down than on trying to provide conditions whereby people in deteriorated situations will feel empowered to pull themselves up and their localities with them. On the other hand the Conservative Party, which I joined after a long period of hard choices, is the home of trying to succeed as individuals - of course - while remembering that much of our peace of mind depends on how things are going in the sink estate down the road or the struggling local comprehensive. Sadly, I left him to load his car and walked away.

As I prepared to return to the draughty old fen, I was left impressed not by the ostensible regeneration of swathes of the Glasgow that I belong to, but by the little victories that are sometimes difficult to see. Attacking adversity with humour; Fr Jim's fruit-bearing friendship with the Church of Scotland minister; a woman's life celebrated by eight people where there might have been only seven, and my old church reorganising itself to fit the demands of life outside Mass.

It occurred to me that we tend to accrue carapaces in response to seeing our hopes and dreams slip through our fingers, sometimes at times when life has conditioned us to watch them recede and not chase after them. Just as Elijah found on Mount Horeb that God was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire but in the still, small voice, it seems that hope, like God, springs not only eternal, but in the most surprising ways.

Making my way to Central Station, an icy rain started to fall, and even as these exile's tears ran down my cheeks I laughed. As I prepared to leave Caledonia, it was the final confirmation that I was in Glasgow.

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